American conservatism has shifted so far to the right we almost need a new term to describe it.
Watching David Cameron & Co. dealing with UKIP and the rise of Nigel Farage, it struck me again how much we are divided by a common language; and so how vital it is, if we are ever fully to understand our common politics, that we all become politically and linguistically bilingual. As most people seem to know, some words just don’t mean the same in American-English as they do in English-English. Lots of us know the trivial ones like ‘rubber,’ ‘pavement’ and ‘biscuit;’ but not so many seem to know the important ones – not least ‘liberal’ and, less well recognised still, ‘conservative.’ We need to: because these key political labels may look similar both sides of the Atlantic, but, believe me, in so many different ways the realities they label are not.
American conservatives are not like British conservatives. That is not simply because the whole centre of political discussion in the UK is so far to the left of its US equivalent – though it is certainly that. The two are also different because the edges of mainstream British conservatism have been softened down the years (civilised or disciplined over time, whichever you prefer) in ways that American conservatism has so far avoided: softened initially in Britain by aristocratic notions of noblesse oblige, and softened later by the electoral pressure of proletarian ideas of social justice and collective provision.
Things don’t work quite that way, however, in America. The United States has no feudal past, of course (so no aristocratic softening there); and, more damaging still, it has currently no labour movement worth speaking of. American conservatism is, in consequence, far freer than is its British equivalent to build its politics around a messianic faith in the magic of the unregulated market, an unshakeable belief in the God-given link between private property and individual liberty, and the absolute conviction that the main danger to that liberty lies in the activity of a progressive state. If you want mid-Victorian insensitivity to the plight of the poor back in the centre of your politics, come join the Tea Party now.
American conservatism has its fierce and deep divisions – particularly those between fiscal conservatives, social conservative and libertarians – divisions that can and do tear the Republican Party apart on issues like NSA-snooping and immigration reform. There isn’t much love lost between a Republican defence-hawk like John McCain and a libertarian defence-dove like Rand Paul.
But those divisions pale into insignificance when facing the reality of even modest health care reform from the Obama Administration; or token additions to financial regulation in the manner of Dodd-Franks; or even proposals for a second round of economic stimulus à la Paul Krugman. Then it’s all solid party unity on the American Right – and the pursuit of ideological purity. So in the House of Representatives there are currently no Republican votes for ‘Obamacare’, even if that means more of the American poor are left without health coverage, as they will be. No Republican votes are there for bank regulation, even if a second financial crisis looms, which it might. And there is no tolerance of a second stimulus because all Republicans know that government spending squeezes out private-sector investment and growth, even though – in the middle of a recession – visibly it doesn’t.
To a degree unknown in contemporary Britain, political common sense in America is infused these days with the ideas and personalities of the 1770s. The only UK equivalent that easily springs to mind is the 1980s preoccupation of Northern Irish Protestants with the events of the 1690s. But in the UK, the rest of the political conversation was then, and is now, entirely modern. It stretches back at most to Margaret Thatcher on the right, to Attlee on the Left, and rarely if ever gets back even to 1914.
Most mainland British voters probably found Ian Paisley’s passion for William and Mary, and his enthusiasm for the Battle of the Boyne, at best incomprehensible, and even slightly mad. But political and legal rhetoric in the United States often draws heavily on arguments of the Founding Fathers: indeed as recently as April 2010 Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told a group of trainee lawyers that ‘examining what the Founders meant when writing the Constitution was unquestionably ‘the best method for judging cases’. So it is perhaps not to be wondered at that the market philosophy of Adam Smith should have such purchase on the Right here, or that a libertarian passion for a retreat into the hills, armed only with a gun and a belief in American Destiny, should strike such a chord with Tea Party activists.
American conservatives are only part of the American story; and we should never forget that American liberals stand comparison with any British Labour or Liberal voter in their commitment to social justice and economic equality. But American conservatives are something else again. The centre of gravity of their politics is currently so far to the right that we almost need another term to differentiate it from what passes in Britain as conservative politics.
Speaking personally, I look on the James Inhofe’s, Rand Paul’s and Ted Cruz’s of this world much like I once looked on Ian Paisley: as dangerous and slightly demented. One big problem for the Left in America is that our Ian Paisley equivalents are deeply embedded into the highest federal political institutions of the land – holding a veto in the Senate now, and maybe even holding majority control there after the next mid-terms. The other big problem is that a large number of politically active American conservatives don’t find Senators of a libertarian kind slightly demented at all.
So, if you despair of UKIP and feel like a change, let’s swop! If you want crazy, we can give you crazy. How about Senator James Inhofe dismissing climate change as ‘alarmists seeing an opportunity to tax the American people’? Or Senator Kelly Ayotte on the lack of need for new legislation on equal pay for women because, as she said, we have enough laws of that kind already? Or Senator Rand Paul on first auditing and ideally abolishing the Federal Reserve, because central banking causes boom-and-bust cycles? Or Texas Republican Senator Michael Burgess opposing abortion after 15 weeks because he has clear evidence that male foetuses masturbate?
If Margaret Thatcher-on-steroids is your view of what conservatism should be in the modern age, come visit the modern American Republican Party – because Thatcherism-on steroids is there already.
This column was first published by SPERI